Just four years ago, in the early days of January 2002, we launched the initiative for Victory Over Want (VOW). It was, and is, a visionary concept: but, above all, it was, and remains, practical, pragmatic and based on precedents that succeeded brilliantly in the past.
Roosevelt's Four Freedoms
It is more than 60 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for Freedom from Want as one of the four basic freedoms. As we enter 2006, there is more hunger, malnutrition and starvation around the world than ever. Despite the marvellous advances in medicine, more people suffer from devastating illness than ever before - from maladies that are mostly treatable and, in many cases, completely curable. Homeless people grow in numbers every year - even in the wealthiest countries, as well as in the poorest.
None of this is because we do not have the resources to eliminate most of this suffering and deprivation. Instead of doing that - instead of acting in practical ways - we indulge in rhetoric, we offer often grandiose but mostly empty pledges, and we embrace "solutions" that, having failed so often, we must know are doomed to fail again.
Recently, we have seen a "solution" agreed at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong that will see agricultural subsidies reduced or eliminated, not now, but in about eight years time. But even if and when the subsidies have all gone, the farmers in the poor countries will still be struggling desperately to make a decent living and the demand for food will still enormously outstrip supply. The effective demand will be less of course than the potential demand. The need for food will be as great, or almost certainly much greater, than ever before.
Farm production in Europe and North America might then be less than it was before; production in some of the developing countries might be greater. But, in aggregate, the amount of available food will be just about what it is now. That means that the amount available for hungry, malnourished and starving people will be about what it is now - and by 2013, there will be millions more mouths to feed and many more millions of children and adults who will, inevitably, go to sleep hungry each night.
We are now about six billion living human beings. That number is increasing as never before. It will continue to increase until we achieve standards of living that will enable everyone to join, voluntarily, in limiting population growth to what the earth might be able to sustain.
Already, we are using just about all the fertile areas. Deserts are not shrinking: they are creeping, spreading, growing larger each year. We need not to limit our use of farmland but to manage and nurture it better. We need to have a much broader and longer vision of feeding the world's people from the farmland we have available to us.
Twenty years ago, a world food discount plan was put forward that would have arranged production to accord with the needs of a growing population and the needs of poor farmers in developing countries, including their needs for infrastructure and economic development. That plan would not have cut needed production in the richer farm areas or anywhere else. On the contrary, it would have expanded production to meet urgent and continuing needs.
Two things are really required. First, we need to develop projects and programs that bring benefit to us all. It should not be a question of giving and receiving or of having "do-gooder" donor countries on one side and "corrupt, incompetent and ignorant" recipients on the other. Instead, it should be a matter of everyone working together to solve problems of poverty - and disease and other human afflictions - for the benefit of all, rich and poor, wherever they may be.
Second, we need to identify failure - the failure of our efforts over the past half century - and to have the vision and the will to embark on new ventures that are much more likely to succeed.
Paul Theroux: "Empty Talk and Public Gestures"
Paul Theroux tells us that "dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful but stupid and harmful". He deplores what "seems to be Africa's fate to become a theatre of empty talk and public gestures". Most perceptively, he regrets "the patronising attention of donors [that] has done violence to Africa's belief in itself". "Even in the absence of responsible leadership," he adds, "Africans themselves have proven how resilient they can be - something they never get credit for".
Theroux has still left out one important consideration, or has failed to make it explicit. The established, rich and powerful societies of our world, especially in the United States but also Western Europe, face a period of potential economic and social turmoil right now - in 2006 and beyond. Just one precipitating event - financial, economic, political or strategic or even a natural disaster - could cause devastation more cruel than we have ever known, even than the Great Depression of the 1930s. It will then be for all of us to lift ourselves up together, as we did for a time - all too short a time - in the 20 years or so immediately after World War II. For a while there, in the late 1960s, we thought we might even achieve Roosevelt's goal of a world free from want. Then it all fell apart.
If those circumstances of the 1930s, or worse, emerge, we will see with terrible clarity how necessary it is, not to engage in patronising rhetoric or futile pledges, but to rescue ourselves by rescuing others - our neighbours or those who are far away, those who are like us and those who are not, those whom we used to regard as poor and who now, perhaps, might be no poorer than we have become ourselves. The economic and social tsunami may, by then, have overwhelmed us all.
The imperative then will be to work together and plan together on our common problems for our common survival. It will not be a matter of one country or group imposing a "plan" on others but of all of us designing the way ahead through common effort, initiative and inspiration.
The cost is trivial, the gain is great
That is what Victory Over Want had in mind four years ago and the concept that it still nourishes today. Four years on, it still seems to be the best way ahead. Indeed, the imperatives are much greater now than they ever were; and, in a world that has become accustomed to think in terms of billions, even trillions of dollars - often trillions of debt rather than trillions of hard-working assets - the VOW initiative would not cost much.